Italy’s Cinque Terre: Views to Die For

By Rick Steves
Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy
High above Vernazza, the town cemetery gives the best views to loved ones who’ve passed away. (photo: Rick Steves)

In the spindly villages of the Italian Riviera, like Vernazza, the march of time has a strong beat. Everyone knows everyone. Even repeat visitors, like me, celebrate births, see people grow old, and are saddened by their loss. For years, Lorenzo dazzled me with the fine yet rustic cuisine of Liguria — addictive anchovies, fresh pesto ground from basil picked today and sprightly white wine.

Then one year I came and Lorenzo was gone — a victim of cancer. Now, he’s king of the Vernazza mountain. He’s resting and enjoying the best view of all from a “hotel” booked out by locals for years, the town's hilltop cemetery.

I remember the day I learned of Lorenzo's death. Leaving Vernazza’s harborfront, I climb the long, crooked staircase up to Il Castello, Lorenzo's restaurant, where Monica, his thirty-something daughter, greets me warmly while giving me the sad news.

I tell Monica that I’ve been thinking about her father and she suggests we visit the cemetery. Hiking through narrow back alleys that smell of damp cats, we find the lane that leads uphill to the cemetery. I recall, after a funeral Mass, seeing the entire village spilling out of the church and parading darkly up this same route.

At the top, an open black iron gate welcomes us into the cemetery — fragrant with fresh flowers. Quiet lanes separate marble walls of niches, stacked five high. Walking down a lane closest to the sea, Monica explains that coffins are not put into the ground but slid into a loculo. Squinting at a wall of niches, reflecting bright white in the late afternoon sun, I review names and dates carved into the marble. Each niche is wired with a tiny light and comes with a built-in vase. And next to each vase is an inset oval window filled with a black-and-white portrait.    

Ever since the early 1800s when it was decreed that cemeteries were health risks, the burial spots of Riviera towns have been located outside of town. The result? The dearly departed generally get first-class sea views. Each village cemetery — with its evocative yellowed photos and finely carved Carrara marble memorial reliefs — is worth a visit.

Stepping around a rolling ladder — left out for loved ones with flowers for those resting on the top row — Monica arrives at her father’s loculo. She leaves me long enough to cross herself. Then, turning toward the sea, Monica sits on a flat rock just big enough for two. Patting the other half of her perch, she invites me to sit down.

We ignore the red tiles, flapping laundry, and tourists lounging on the breakwater below and enjoy the sweeping cemetery view. After swapping stories of how Lorenzo loved to feed hungry tourists, I assure Monica that her father would be happy at the way she carries on the family tradition. Then I ask my friend about traditional funerals in this part of Italy.

Monica explains. “When someone dies, the body is dressed up and lies in bed for two days as everyone in the village comes by. The house must be open all night. The law requires this for twenty-four hours. Forty-eight hours in the case of a heart problem to be sure the person is really dead. It can be a hardship on the family. Such a sad time. But it is a time when a community is strong together.”

Smiling, she explains how some families avoid the mass of visitors. “When someone is about to die, they'll call the ambulance so the person can go to the hospital and die there. This way you don’t have the village in your house.”

"This is the village tradition. In the big cities, things are different. My professor died in the hospital — we were sent away at eight o’clock at night. He was behind glass.”

I asked if all funerals were Catholic. Monica recalled, “Recently a strong communist who was dying asked for a civil funeral. He insisted, 'No priests.' This is rare and courageous in front of death. It may be okay to have a civil wedding, but is the finish.”

From our perch, the world is a peaceful green and reassuring blue that blends the sea and sky. To the left and right, I pick out each of the Cinque Terre towns along the coast. Each is alone in the world — seemingly oblivious to the march of time. I wonder what could possibly make this moment more evocative. Then the church bells ring.